Mary Cowan

Mary Cowan

On an elevated position of the east staircase hall hangs a large half-length eighteenth century oil painting of a woman, looking proprietorially at all that surrounds her. The painting depicts a likeness of Mary Cowan, daughter of Alderman John Cowan of Londonderry, who in 1737 married her cousin, Alexander Stewart of Stewart’s Court, Ballylawn in County Donegal.

The marriage was a more than satisfactory one, and one which would propel the Stewarts into the upper reaches of the landed classes in Ireland. An heiress, in its proper use of the term, Mary had inherited a large fortune from her unmarried and childless brother, Sir Robert Cowan, Governor of Bombay. Her trustees invested, in 1744, a portion of her fortune thought to be in the region of £42,000, consisting of East India Company Stock, in ‘two extensive manors in County Down, Newtownards and Comber, consisting in all of sixty townlands, which were for sale and might be expected to yield a satisfactory return on the capital investment’. On the banks of Strangford Lough was the glorious Mount Pleasant demesne, now known as Mount Stewart, which would become the family seat of the Stewarts.

It is perhaps too obvious, but important to enunciate that without the marriage to Mary Cowan in 1737, the Stewarts would not have had the sufficient wealth to invest so heavily in landed property, nor embark on the spectacular and successive eighteenth century political careers that her sons and grandsons would so do – political careers that would raise the family from merchant to marquess in only one generation. Not only was their economic position bolstered by Mary Cowan’s marriage settlement, but their social standing in Britain and Ireland rocketed in an unprecedented scale. The Cowan connection was something that the family would reflect upon with admiration throughout the generations - the symbolic dowry chest that she brought to Mount Stewart has remained as a reminder of her significance, and the Cowan China, an enormous suite of 59 items bearing the Cowan armorial on each piece would remain central to the family’s collection.

Dr Neil Watt, House and Collections Manager


Edith,Lady Londonderry, Lady Mairi Bury, Lady Theresa Chetwynd-Talbot

Women and Power  

Throughout 2018, the National Trust will be celebrating the centenary of the Representation of People Act which brought the vote to some women for the first time. To mark this historic moment, we will be celebrating the lives and legacies of the women who made our places special. At Mount Stewart our focus will be on the women of the Londonderry family whilst exploring perceptions of power

Explore our collections

Search the National Trust's collections, including the special items at Mount Stewart.